29 March 2014

Mississippi

I could tell she was excited, but I could still hear the hesitation and fear in her voice. It quavered slightly as we discussed our plans, and a pang of pain went through my spine. Was I making her uncomfortable? Was I forcing her to do something she didn't want to do?

"I'm just a little scared," she explained as we looked at the map. "I've never been backpacking before."

I smiled, and told her I had tried to account for everything, but that what we were doing was going to be an adventure. Luckily for me, her desire to explore and to go camping overwhelmed her fears and hesitation, and it was not long before we were off to southern Mississippi.

Though not far from where I lived in Louisiana for so many years, Mississippi was a place I had seldom ventured. I had been just over the border to places such as Clark Creek and once to the Homochitto National Forest, but otherwise, it was just an area I ignored. Many areas of the state have poor birding coverage, with many 'blank spaces' on the eBird coverage maps, and some of Mississippi's counties are among the least birded in the country. As Caroline lives to close to Mississippi, I always enjoy traveling there, and when I discovered that one of the largest wilderness areas on the Gulf Coast was in the De Soto National Forest, it seemed obvious what we should do for the first part of our trip.

And so, not long after I arrived in Louisiana, I found myself departing to the east with Caroline, and we set off on our Mississippi adventure.

Our first stop was the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. A bird that most people don't know, the critically endangered Mississippi Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis pulla) is largely restricted to two small patches of wet pine savanna in southeastern Mississippi. Needless to say, it was a bird I really wanted to see! However, luck was not with us during our visit. We had a great bird list, but crane was not on it. We did, however, enjoy a beautiful walk through the pines together. Caroline pointed out some carnivorous plants to me, and we walked amicably through the broad, open woodland listening to Brown-headed Nuthatches and Pine Warblers.

Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge
Wet pine savanna in Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. This endangered ecosystem was once much more widespread along the gulf coast.

Sarracenia alata
A Pale Pitcherplant (Sarracenia alata) in the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge. These carnivorous plants are local but widespread in the American south.

After exploring the wildlife refuge, Caroline and I headed north into the heart of De Soto National Forest. There, we proceeded to enter Caroline's first ever roadless area: the Black Creek Wilderness.

Black Creek Wilderness

After crossing the Black Creek Wilderness boundary, we found ourselves in a fascinating mix of Longleaf Pine and deciduous trees. Northern Parulas sang from the dense Magnolias, and Carolina Chickadees called along the trail. There were several sections within the forest that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina and the damage was still evident, and other areas where recent treefalls had blocked the trails. Thankfully, I had my machete with me, and was able to clear a new trail through the undergrowth.

We camped approximately 3 miles from the car within the forest, and were awoken the next morning by the sounds of spring. A very vocal and territorial Louisiana Waterthrush acted as our alarm clock, and a distant Prothonotary Warbler chimed in as well. As we hiked out, we enjoyed great views of a Swallow-tailed Kite as well. We plucked the occasional ticks off of our clothes, but, for the most part, it was near impossible to see Caroline without a smile.

We returned to the car and reloaded up our gear, and Caroline mentioned that she looked forward to backpacking again. I smiled, and realized it had been a very successful trip.

I'll cover the rest of my spring break in the south soon. To be continued!

Black Creek Wilderness, De Soto National Forest
The trail in Black Creek Wilderness, Mississippi.

20 March 2014

Equatorial Guinea: The Final Days

The last day we spent in Río Muni was spent at the namesake estuary in the far south of the country. The weaving brackish water forms the border between Gabon and Equatorial Guinea, and we were excited to see what sorts of birds we could turn up.

As the day progressed, however, we began to wonder if we were going to make it there at all. Our guide called us, apologetic, and stated that he was having trouble reaching our driver. When they did finally show up, we were two hours behind schedule. Though we had a nice laid back morning of porch birding, we were very excited about seeing more of the country. We wound our way south along the newly constructed roads, and eventually found ourselves in the port town of Cogo. Here, Obama negotiated on our behalf as we sought a way to enter the estuary. Birding in the town was surprisingly productive. A point blank Hamerkop flew along the shore, and flocks of African Green-Pigeons passed overhead. Most surprisingly, a lone Red-chested Swallow foraged over the downtown, providing one of the only records of this patchily distributed species for the country. Additionally, a Black Sawwing, a bird I had not seen since my days in South Africa, flew continuously back and forth from an island in the bay, making us believe that there was a nest nearby.

Eventually, we managed to secure a boat, and headed further out into the estuary, into a region known as Cuatro Ríos. Where four large headwaters come together, these placid waters glistened under the green hills, and the cool marine air made us feel at ease.

Gabon, as seen from Equatoguinean waters in the Río Muni Estuary.

From here, we drifted through the currents, and eventually found ourselves along a fantastic mudbank. Hamerkop, Marsh Sandpipers, Woolly-necked Storks and Pink-backed Pelicans kept us enthralled, and such gems as Giant Kingfisher, African Royal Tern and Palm-nut Vultures kept our eyes glancing skyward. We became so distracted that we did not realize that we had, in fact, drifted into Gabon! Upon realizing our error, we returned back Cogo along the shore, and from there headed back to Bata for our return to Bioko.

A Hamerkop (Scopus umbretta) resting along the Río Muni in northern Gabon.

A Palm-nut Vulture (Gypohierax angolensis) checks out our boat as we drift too close in northern Gabon.

Woodland Kingfishers (Halcyon senegalensis) were abundant throughout the country, and commonly nested in towns. This individual, however, was photographed in Altos del Nsork.

The next day, we headed up the highest mountain in Equatorial Guinea: Pico Basile. As we wound our way up the mountain, I reflected on everything that had occurred during my trip. It was incredible how much I had recovered from my illness, and birds that were once completely foreign to me were suddenly familiar. We finally stopped approximately two-thirds of the way up the mountain as our driver was scared of continuing higher, saying that the bus might not be able to handle the drive. So we began to walk around and enjoy the sights, and soon found ourselves enjoying some of the best birding we had had the entire trip. Babbling Evergreen-forest Warblers skulked in the brush, bizarre Green Longtails sang from the vines, and one of the only Willow Warblers ever seen in the country made a brief appearance along the road. We stopped and watched a male Klaas's Cuckoo surveying the mountainside, listened to the raucous calls of the Great Blue Turacos echoing through the trees.

The confusingly named Dusky Flycatcher (or alternatively, Dusky-brown or African Dusky Flycatcher, Muscicapa adusta) is a familiar bird from southern Africa. However, a very disjunct population resides in the Cameroonian highlands and on Bioko. This individual foraged actively along the road and afforded excellent views for us to study it.

Just a few hours later, I sat on the plane, and watched the Equatoguinean coast disappear below me. We all smiled, discussed the best parts of our trip, and slept as much as we could. Our pilot expedition had worked out fantastically well, and we knew enough to plan for a full-scale expedition. I am happy to say that, come November, I will be returning to Equatorial Guinea on a National Geographic-funded expedition, and will be able to unravel more of the ornithological mysteries in this fascinating country.

10 March 2014

Río Muni

The TSA had trained me well. I prepared to take my shoes off, prepared my water bottle for the security checkpoint, and made sure anything suspicious I had was in a non-threatening position. We were at Malabo International Airport, and preparing to fly to Bata, Río Muni. The mainland sector of Equatorial Guinea is sandwiched between Cameroon and Gabon, and access is conducted almost exclusively through Bata, the country's largest city. I prepared my tickets for Ceiba, the national airline of Equatorial Guinea, and negotiated my way through passport control. A paranoid country, I had now become accustomed to random roadblocks and handing over my passport (or copies) at a moment's notice. However, this check went well, and what I saw when I came around the corner shocked me: the security station was empty, and the metal detector was off. I walked over, hesitantly, but managed to walk to the edge of the airport unimpeded.

And so I waited, and talked to my friends, and continued to recover from the illness that had plagued me the previous days. I sat, staring out the window at the Pied Crows and Cattle Egrets flying over the runway, and the frantic foraging patterns of the Little Swifts over the damp grasses. People wandered across the tarmac, and we were soon ushered out to our flight. I thought nothing of it, when suddenly, a security guard saw me drinking from my water bottle. Moments before boarding, I was pulled aside and frantically worked my way through the fast Spanish conversation. Apparently, I had illegally smuggled my water bottle through "security". I was walked out of line across the tarmac, and forced to empty the contents of my water bottle before boarding the flight. After that, it was fairly unevently. The plane climbed high into the West African sky, and I was able to glimpse the foreboding massifs of Pico Basilé and Mount Cameroon. It was not long until the unbroken expanses of the mainland rainforest appeared, and we landed at the small (but very busy) Bata International Airport.

Almost immediately, we encountered our first good bird on the mainland - the country's first record of Lesser Kestrel (Falco naummanni)! However, taking photographs and using binoculars are illegal at airports in Equatorial Guinea, so all we could do is sit and watch the Pied Crows chase it around the parking lot. We soon arrived at the office of the Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Forestal y de Áreas Protegidas (INDEFOR-AP), the Equatoguinean equivalent of the USA's Department of the Interior. There, we met with Fidel Esono, and prepared for our trip deep into the jungle.

Discussing our plans for Río Muni. From left to right: Luke L. Powell, Obama (our local guide), me, and Jared D. Wolfe. Photo taken by Mo Twine, on behalf of the Equatorial Guinea Bird Initiative.

In Bata, we stayed not far from the beach, and familiarized ourselves with mainland birds. On the first morning of our trip, our ride was late, so we sat out in the cool morning air and birded from our porch. Amazingly, a beautiful mixed flock came through, offering us some nice surprises! West African Batis and Splendid Glossy-Starling entertained us, while Black-and-white Shrike-Flycatcher and Red-chested Goshawk kept us on our toes.

Soon, however, we were off to Parque Nacional de los Altos de Nsork, a remote and near-mythical place that we had read about in the extreme southeast of the country. Along our drive, the influx of money from the oil industry was evident everywhere. Interstates with no cars led through pristine jungle, and the towns all had the feel of boom towns, with tiny tin shacks selling bottles of water for over 5 USD. We found ourselves in an area with few amenities, and those that were present we could not afford.

Eventually, we began to set up shop along the edge of the national park. There, we banded for two days, and conducted audiovisual surveys along the road cuts. I grew stronger and stronger as I recovered from my illness, and found myself invigorated by the thick forest around us.


The rarest bird we found in the park was this Wood Sandpiper (Tringa glareola). Foraging along a blocked creek at the edge of the road construction, this bird represents the second record ever for Equatorial Guinea, and the first for the mainland.


A fantastically beautiful forest bird associated with water, the White-throated Blue Swallow (Hirundo nigrita) was a fantastic surprise during a brief roadside stop.


Not all birds are instantly identifiable! Much overlap between the appearances of several species exists, and some require much more study than others. One such bird was this Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk (Accipiter castanilius). A rare, small understory hawk, it is rarely encountered and few photographs exist.


A close-up of the Chestnut-flanked Sparrowhawk we caught in Altos de Nsork. This is the first Accipiter I ever got to hold!


The crown jewel of our African banding efforts was the White-bellied Kingfisher (Corythornis leucogaster), of which we caught two. This bird was made that much better by being caught near a calling Bare-cheeked Trogon (Apaloderma aequatoriale), my first African trogon encounter.

After several days of surveying and banding, we headed back to Bata, and prepared for our last few days in this fantastic country.

To be continued...

06 March 2014

Surviving the Jungle

November 2013 continued:

There are few times in my life that I have felt so miserable and in so much pain. Every step sent me reeling, and there were times I could not even lift my feet. Every time my boots filled with water from the pouring rain I considered it a blessing, as it meant I could pause to empty them out. My clothes stuck to my skin as the water dripped from the brow of my hat. Branches grabbed at me as I climbed higher and higher through the volcanic rock. Stopping offered views of the mist-shrouded forest, but the rains quickly made me cold and forced me to continue on. The cool water kept my fever at bay, but there was no reprieve from the aching in my muscles. My throat burned, and it hurt to breath, but I continued on. I had no choice.

Two days before, I was on top of the world. After banding in Moka, we decided to head to the south coast of Bioko Island via Ureka. We arrived at the coast long after dark, and soon found ourselves conducting the long beach walk in the dead of night. Waterfalls roared out of the cliffs, and the water glistened with the light of the stars. We hiked for miles barefoot in the sand, watching the crabs flee and the imposing jungle looming overhead. Hammer-headed Bats honked from the trees and the occasional shooting star kept our eyes glancing skywards. We came across several massive Loggerhead Turtles nesting on the beach in the dark, the massive, car-sized reptiles being mistaken for rocks until we were so close we could see the sand flying through the night.

At 2 AM, I knew I was sick. My throat ached and burned, my muscles were beginning to clench up, and I feared for what the morning would bring. I had been becoming sicker with speed as our hike progressed, and now, all that lay between me and sleep was a waist-deep rushing river flowing into the sea. Crossing through the icy water, clothes held high above my head, I tripped on the pebbles and rocks on the river bottom and kept my eyes on the far shore. After one of the longest hikes in my life, I had finally made it to the legendary Moaba Camp.

The next morning, however, I could not even speak. I had a raging fever, could barely stand, and felt like my throat was on fire. I crashed under a tarp, and fell asleep listening to the rain. For hours, I slept feverishly, eating what I could and ignoring the paradise that surrounded me. Sea cliffs, waterfalls, and foraging Greenbuls lulled me to sleep, and I slowly regained strength.

It was not long until my friends returned from the forest, and we began the inevitable hard talk. Luke stared at the surrounding forest, and spoke low, making sure I honestly knew what lay ahead. It was clear what my options were: take a bunch of advil and hike the 14 kilometers uphill to Moka, or wait three days for a boat that might not come.

And so, 24 hours later, I found myself popping advil, chugging water and slogging through the mud of the Equatoguinean Rainforest. We spaced out, as we had been trudging for 12 straight hours already, and the rain had dampened our conversations. Every time I saw one of my group, they smiled at me, happy to see I was still on my feet. My memories began to mix and my thoughts were continually focused on the trail before me. I thought of Caroline, and how I wanted to see her in December, and of all the other things I had to hike back to.

Amazingly, I was still able to bird despite my illness! Keeping my mind busy helped me continue on, and when the 36 hours of rain finally halted, I could see Moka, and could even take the time to write down the birds around me (checklist here). African Stonechats flew along the road, and Gray Apalis called from the roadside shrubs.

When I finally made it back to the BBPP field station, I could barely walk. My legs were cramped, my feet burned and ached, and I could not stop smiling. I had made it. I had survived the jungle. I rested as much as I could, and stared at the map of Bioko in the center. Tomorrow, we were having an "easy" travel day and then heading deep into the rainforest on the mainland. Though my fever had broken, I knew that the mainland would be rough as I continued to recover, and I fell asleep thinking about the jungle and what surprises awaited.

To be continued...

Western Mountain Greenbuls (Arizelocichla tephrolaema) such as this one kept me going on my brutal hike while sick.

03 March 2014

Banding in Moka

November, 2013 continued:

The rest of our time in Moka was spent searching for birds on the Bioko Biodiversity Protection Program property and banding what birds we could. We set up nets at the edge of agricultural land and running up along montane riparian forest. Overall, it was a highly successful couple of days. You can view my general birding checklists for the two days here and here.

Platysteira chalybea

One of the more regularly encountered uniquely-African birds at the field station was the Black-necked Wattle-Eye (Platysteira chalybea). Part of the endemic African family Platysteiridae, Wattle-Eyes are aptly named, and always fascinating to watch as they forage in the forest.

Terpsiphone rufiventer tricolor

Part of the predominately Australasian radiation Monarchidae, Paradise-Flycatchers are a much sought-after group by birders. This particular individual is a Black-headed Paradise-Flycatcher (Terpsiphone rufiventer tricolor). This subspecies is endemic to Bioko.

Cyanomitra oritis poensis

One of the most beautiful bird families in the Old World is the Nectariniidae. There are dozens of species worldwide, with some more colorful than others. This particular individual is a Cameroon Sunbird (Cyanomitra oritis poensis), a large taxa endemic to the Cameroonian Highlands and Bioko.

Cinnyris reichenowi preussi

A much more colorful sunbird on Bioko is the Northern Double-Collared Sunbird (Cinnyris reichenowi preussi). This was the first species of sunbird I ever saw in Equatorial Guinea; ironically, the first species I ever saw in South Africa was the Southern Double-collared Sunbird (Cinnyris chalybeus)!

Elminia albiventris albiventris

While in Equatorial Guinea, I was able to experiment with vocal recording for the first time. One of the highest quality recordings I was able to obtain was of a singing White-bellied Crested Flycatcher (Elminia albiventris albiventris), available HERE. Just moments before getting this recording, we managed to catch one as well, allowing us to obtain a complete multimedia experience for this fascinating bird.

Eurillas virens virens

One of the most widespread groups of African birds is the Greenbuls. Members of the family Pycnonotidae, Greenbuls can be maddeningly frustrating, and their calls and sounds were a constant companion on our trip. One of the most common species in Bioko was the Little Greenbul (Eurillas virens virens).

Sheppardia bocagei poensis

Last, but not least, is Bocage's Akalat (Sheppardia bocagei poensis). This enjoyable little bird was often flushed from trails in the forest, and was an enjoyable bird to have in the hand.

This is but a small sampling of the avifauna of West Africa, and an excellent look at some of the fascinating taxa that exist in the more remote reaches of Bioko, Equatorial Guinea.

More to come!